Information and Communication Technologies in Interpreting –Remote and Telephone Interpreting
The development of new information and communication technologies has made an impact on the field of professional interpreting. New tools have made borderless communication possible. They facilitate human interaction but at the same time create new challenges for interpreters.
Over the last few years the use of new types of interpreting such as media/video or remote interpreting has increased considerably (Mouzourakis 1996/Riccardi 2000), as has the use of telephone interpreting. This is being increasingly used not only in business contexts, but also in courts and in particular in health care settings, as an expedient alternative to the physical presence of an interpreter (Benmaman 1999). Telephone interpreter services and video interpreting can be quicker and cheaper than live interpretation. As a result convenience and availability considerations have led to new technologies in audiovisual data transfer becoming increasingly attractive to potential clients. However, very little research has been done on these new types of interpreting and “most of the limited research that has been done is not based on long-term empirical studies” (Ko 2006:325). In this article an overview of selected research findings, studies, experiments and observations shall be given, as well as an analysis of the advantages and problems inherent in the use of new technological tools in the field of interpretation.
1 Research on Remote Interpreting
New technologies experienced a particular boom at the beginning of the 1990s. While video conferencing is not used as often as initially predicted, international organisations in particular are nevertheless showing an increasing interest in video and remote conferences, if for no other reason than cost-efficiency. In 1995 the interpreting costs for an EU meeting with 11 languages were about €18,000. Today, between 800 and 1000 interpreters are on hand for the plenary sittings of the European Parliament alone. There are 506 possible language combinations (23 x 22 languages!). In the meantime the number of languages has doubled and will continue to increase, as has the number of meetings per day. As a result of the enlargement process there is not only a lack of large conference rooms but also of interpreting booths. It is thus understandable that the prospect of introducing video conferencing and remote interpreting is becoming more and more enticing. But what do we mean by video/remote interpreting? In remote interpreting the conference participants are all in one location, while the team of interpreters is in another and watches and interprets the proceedings via video conferencing. Remote interpreting is the most extreme form of video conferences with interpretation and also – as reflected in its vehement rejection by many interpreters – the most problematic form. Monitors or large screens represent the only visual contact to speaker and audience, as opposed to video conferences where conference participants and interpreters are in the same location. The conference is then either broadcast elsewhere simultaneously, or external contributions displayed on monitors or large screens are interpreted, with direct visual contact at least with the audience.
What does the trend towards remote interpreting imply for interpreters?
Will the simultaneous interpreter now be banned from the conference room and have to work from a video conference studio, just as the consecutive interpreter sitting in the conference room with the delegates was replaced by the simultaneous interpreter in the booth? (Kurz 2000:292). The new technologies will certainly have an influence on interpreting itself and on
the interpreters’ working lives. Although the necessary technical prerequisites for remote interpreting are available, there is a great deal of uncertainty concerning the new challenges it poses to interpreters and the changes it implies in terms of working conditions. These changes are perceived as negative by interpreters. This is why it is important to have a look at the studies conducted so far in order to identify the most important results and to draw the appropriate conclusions.
1.1 Studies on Remote Interpreting
In the 70s and 80s a number of experiments with remote interpreting were conducted, for example the UNESCO conference in 1976, with the interpreters working from Paris, while the UNESCO General Assembly was taking place in Nairobi, or the United Nations Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Use of Outer Space in Vienna in 1982, with the interpreters
in a separate building. Satellite links were set up for these experiments which only lasted a few hours. Although communication was successful, the interpreters complained of an increase in stress. A simultaneous evaluation of the costs led to the conclusion that this kind of technology was too expensive, but at the same time, the idea that remote interpreting should be
possible, given adequate picture and sound quality, was becoming increasingly feasible. As a result the UN Inter-Agency Meeting on Language Arrangements, Documentation and Publications in Vienna 1998 decided to examine the technical feasibility of remote interpreting using ISDN lines and assess the consequences of remote interpreting on the interpreters’ health and performance. The experiment was conducted in January/February 1999 during a working group meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights (RI:UNHQ, UNOG, UNO 1999). The conference took place in Geneva; the interpreters were working from Vienna (United Nations 1999). The duration of the conference was two weeks and the interpreters interpreted into six languages.
What were the most important results of this experiment?
The conference participants responded in a questionnaire that they were satisfied with the interpretation. What about the interpreters? They were asked to complete a daily questionnaire about their feelings and impressions concerning the working conditions. They were satisfied with the sound quality but voiced criticism concerning visual information. The interpreters had to sit in a room in semi-darkness and to look at a split screen showing a small image of the conference room, the audience and chairperson on one half and the respective speaker on the other half of the screen. They had no control over what was to be displayed on the screen and were totally dependent on the camera work of the technician in Geneva. The arguably most important result was that the interpreters developed a feeling of insecurity as they had no control over what was displayed on the screen. Accordingly, they felt that remote interpreting, as compared to standard conference interpreting, caused higher levels of stress and fatigue and negatively influenced their motivation and their ability to concentrate (Kurz 1999/2000/United Nations 1999).
In April that same year the ITU – International Telecommunication Union– and ETI (Ecole de Traduction et d’Interprétation, University of Geneva) carried out a three day long study examining feasibility and costs of remote interpreting and its impact on the quality of interpreting performances (Joint Project 2003/Moser 2005b). The conference room had a Spanish, an English and a French booth, while, for the purpose of the experiment, a second French booth was located outside the room with a video link. The French interpreters alternated between the external booth and the booth inside the conference room. The interpreters working in the French booth inside the conference room served as a control group. All interpreters who took part in this experiment completed questionnaires concerning their personal details and a technical questionnaire on remote interpreting before and after interpreting. Additionally, saliva samples were taken in order to find out if remote interpreting resulted in higher levels of stress hormones. The interpretations of both French booths over the whole three days were recorded on tape in addition to the original. What were the results? As in the UN experiment, the audience was satisfied with interpretation quality. The saliva tests did not show a substantial difference between the levels of stress hormones of the interpreters in the booth inside the conference room and those doing remote interpreting. But the interpreters themselves again described the experience of remote interpreting as negative. They felt a physical and psychological distance to the conference proceedings, which made them experience a feeling of loss of control. Accordingly, they felt their stress levels when doing remote interpreting were higher. The fact that the interpreters were disassociated from the conference proceedings led not only to a decrease in motivation but also to a subjective increase in the occurrence of fatigue symptoms. Images from the conference room that would have been important for the interpreters to see were not shown. An analysis of the results raised the issue whether a lack of visual contact means that interpreters need more mental capacity to compensate for this lack of information which in its turn causes symptoms of fatigue to occur earlier than usual (Joint Project 2003).
The second comprehensive UN experiment and a remote interpreting study by the European Parliament – both carried out in 2001 – produced similar results (United Nations 2001/ Working Party on New Technologies of the Interpretation Directorate/Brussels 2001). The listeners were satisfied and the interpreters even praised picture and sound quality and the good view of the speakers. However, they criticised the view of the conference room and, in both studies, said that they experienced a feeling of insecurity, higher stress levels and deterioration of performance. To sum up the results of these early studies, it has been established that while the interpreters managed to ensure an adequate quality of interpretation, they did so at a higher cost, both psychologically and physically. The aforementioned study by the European Parliament in 2001 finally led to the most comprehensive study so far on remote interpreting by the European Parliament in 2005. A team of 15 researchers carried out a study with 36 interpreters in which they examined the physical and ergonomic aspects of the working environment in remote interpreting and focused on performance, health, strain and stress. The experiment took five weeks. The interpreters worked on site for two weeks in a normal conference situation. After a break and preparation time for remote interpreting of one week, the interpreters did two weeks of remote interpreting. The results of this study were as follows: the physical working environment was perceived as adequate; the ergonomic working environment was not. Again, the interpreters experienced a feeling of isolation and alienation and suffered from having to stare at screens which only provided them with a partial view of the conference proceedings. They missed having a complete view of the audience, even if they said that the view of the speaker was better than in the on-site situation. They complained more of headaches, burning eyes and lack of concentration, high tension, fatigue and exhaustion, although in medical examinations no increase in stress levels was detected. They felt that they performed less well when doing remote interpreting. This feeling could not be confirmed in a performance evaluation of the first week, although during the second week the performance level was shown to have decreased slightly (European Parliament 2005).
1.2 Unsolved Problems
The studies described above give rise to several questions. Why do interpreters experience remote interpreting as so stressful and exhausting although they have an excellent view of the speaker? How important is the visual information gained from a broad view of the audience and the conference proceedings as a whole, for the interpreters’ work, their ability to understand correctly, their motivation and consequently their performance? How important is the feeling of being present? (Moser 2005b/Mouzourakis 1996). Research in information processing and discourse understanding has shown that in order to understand an utterance we use information from several sources. In their model of text comprehension Van Dijk and Kintsch (1983) assume that […] discourse understanding involves not only the representation of a textbase in episodic memory, but at the same time, the activation, updating, and other uses of a so-called situation model in episodic memory, i.e. the cognitive representation of the events, persons, and in general the situation the text is about. Access to contextual information such as the view of audience and speaker, in addition to the information explicitly uttered in discourse, allows the listeners, the interpreters in this case, to draw on socio-cultural knowledge in order to better understand what is being said. Interpreters know from experience that a great deal of socio-cultural information cannot be inferred directly from the speech, but is deducted from the context, the situation itself and the conference proceedings (Moser 2002/2005a). Experiments have shown that context plays an important role in language perception (Warren and Warren 1970). The situational context, similar to the verbal and cognitive contexts, is a cognitive element which not only eliminates ambiguity but also helps the interpreters decide how to correctly understand an utterance. The situational context includes all kinds of non-verbal perceptions such as gestures, facial expressions, the speaker’s posture or reactions of conference participants. Consequently, visual information is an integral part of the understanding process (Eder 2003). Panayotis Mouzourakis (2003), interpreter at the EP and researcher in the field of interpreting states: Human vision does not work like a video camera, passively recording the details of the world. Rather, it searches for those essential features that allow it to answer specific questions. It is a problem-driven, selective and active vision. Interpreters do not merely look at a speaker; instead, the direction of the interpreter’s gaze at any given moment is correlated with the kind of visual information needed to help with the processing of the meaning that the interpreter is constructing. Here it becomes obvious that two interpreters will never gain the same nonverbal information from the conference room by focusing on the same object at exactly the same time (Moser 2002). The importance and the required amount of non-verbal information differ for each individual interpreter and depend on the difficulties each interpreter may have at any given time in understanding the meaning of what is being said.
From the interpreters’ perspective two problems become apparent:
1. In human communication the verbal meaning of an utterance is only part of the meaning the speaker intends to convey. Only part of the information is made explicit. Interpreters must infer the intended meaning, must add contextual information to make a statement complete (Setton 1999). Inferring meaning and intention is a cognitive process in which non-verbal information is essential.
2. The interpreter must be in a position to establish how the audience in the conference room reacts to what the speaker is saying, and if the interpreter himself has inferred correctly. Feedback processes are an important part of the interpreting process. These take place continuously (Clark and Brennan 1991) and are an essential element of successful semantic anticipation. If the respective visual information is missing, the interpreter has to use other cognitive resources to compensate for this lack of information which could use up more capacity. The remote interpreting situation creates a new working environment for interpreters, which requires them to develop more problem solving strategies. The task of coordinating sound and visual information, of “reconstructing” a conference situation that is far away from their location, and the feeling of loss of control put additional strain on mental resources
which, due to the cognitive complexity of the task of simultaneous interpreting, are already taxed to the limit. Generally, professional interpreters perform well under normal working conditions, but changing these conditions influences their performance and the precarious balance between the understanding and production processes. Visual information or lack thereof has considerable influence on the feeling of presence. In remote interpreting situations interpreters must use additional resources in order to feel “present” while working from a distance –doing remote interpreting. Held and Durlach (1992) state that this feeling of presence is influenced, amongst other factors, by the amount of control available to the person concerned. Interpreters participating in studies of remote interpreting repeatedly complained of a lack of control and thus of feeling alienated. Being in control means, amongst other things, being able to anticipate what will happen next, an essential element in simultaneous interpreting and an important strategy when it comes to managing one’s resources (Moser 2002/2005b). The feeling of alienation causes a decrease in motivation and so makes the interpreter resort to automatisms. Motivation has been proven to be an integral part of performance. Alienation, however, is a subjective feeling and cannot therefore be easily defined and objectively measured. The extent to which an interpreter feels present in a virtual environment thus depends not only on the features of this virtual environment but also on the individual perception of the interpreter and his competence.
Conclusions for Remote Interpreting. What conclusions can be drawn?
It is clear that a number of technical problems in remote interpreting remain to be solved, for example the lack of synchronisation between sound and images. Studies concerning visual behaviour or visual attention of interpreters and thus the importance of visual information in the interpreting process are needed. More experiments carried out over a longer period of
time in which the quality of remote interpreting is evaluated are also called for. It is particularly important that interpreters adapt themselves mentally to using new technologies and to facing new challenges. Interpreters need to be prepared for this. They need to be equipped not only with “routine expertise” which enables them to regularly perform well in routine situations but also with “adaptive expertise” (Bransford et al. 2000/Moser 2005a). They require different problem solving and capacity management strategies in order to be better prepared to face new situations. As in all complex cognitive processes, practice plays an important role. Telephone interpreting, which can be characterised as remote interpreting under more difficult conditions, has been used increasingly often over the last few years in medical settings in particular, as it is often the only way to communicate with people not speaking the language of the country concerned.